About the book:
Brynn Hilder has conned a lot of people. From the spoiled rich kids of Sikawa City to her mom’s loser ex-boyfriend, from a motorcycle gang to a senator’s son. If there was money to be gained, or a secret to uncover, she figured out how to get it done. And thanks to Vale Hall and its director, Dr. David Odin, she’s found a family of hustlers just like her.
Together, Brynn and her friends have overcome doubt, deceit, and betrayal to unearth the truth–a truth even a group of professional scammers couldn’t have predicted.
And now they must tackle the biggest con artist of them all: the man who brought them all together.
Here’s an exclusive FIRST LOOK at the cover for Payback! Keep scrolling down to read a special sneak peek AND check out the new paperback look for Scammed, book two in the series (coming 2.2.21).
Henry Kowalski, the hustler with a heart of gold, rakes his blonde hair to one side as I track two men hurrying across the parking lot of the NightStar Canning warehouse. They knock on a rusted door marked “employees,” and after a quick exchange with a big, burly guy, disappear inside, just like the dozen others that came before.
“You’ve got this,” I tell Henry, pulling him behind the corrugated metal wall of NightStar’s smoke shack. “Just follow my lead.”
He shifts, the leather jacket he got for tonight creaking against my shoulder. It’s faded at the stress points. I know this, because he pointed it out no less than six times. It’s supposed to make him look tough.
Now he just needs to act that way.
“No, I know,” he says. “But what if instead of me being your cousin, I’m a young entrepreneur who’s gotten rich off developing this app—”
“Just listen. It connects athletes with personalized eating tips and hot new workout attire trends—”
“And I’m looking to blow my tidal wave of cash in a seedy establishment with sweaty men who like to wrestle.” He wiggles his eyebrows, and leans closer to whisper, “I’ve even got a name. Dolph Müller. Good, right?”
A bitter December wind rattles the roof of the smoke shack.
I step closer. Take his warm hands. Try to smile so it doesn’t look like I’m about to kill him. “What if Dolph doesn’t speak English and lets me do all the talking?”
He pouts. “You don’t like it.”
“I like the strong but silent angle more.”
He lifts the collar of his jacket, giving me his best tough guy pose, and waits for me to change my mind.
With a sigh of resignation, he heads toward the warehouse, and my hesitance evaporates with the confidence in Henry’s stride. Soon, we’re standing in front of the rusted door, my fist poised under the faded Employees Only sign.
I give Henry one last look. His green eyes find mine. For a moment, the weight of this mission presses against my chest. Every day that Dr. O is still playing puppet master at Vale Hall is another day that we’re in danger. Charlotte and Sam are depending on us. Margot and all the students before her that Dr. O has erased from existence need this to work.
Caleb needs this to work.
It’s go time.
I knock. The door pulls inward, and a man the size of a school bus hulks in the yellow ring of light above. He takes one look at us, scoffs, and begins to shut us out.
“Wait!” I cram my foot in the jamb, the rubber sole of my Chucks blocking the exit. “I’ve got money.”
Slowly, the door swings back open. My ears tune in to the raised voices somewhere down that dark hallway behind him.
“What do you want?” The school bus has a cross tattooed on his neck, and a lump of chewing tobacco in the pocket of his cheek. In a flash, I’m back in Devon Park, standing outside Pete’s apartment, waiting for his bouncer, Eddie, to let me in.
I imagine they’re pulling the same routine in prison, thanks to a drug bust I kindly set up on their behalf.
“I want to bet on a fight,” I tell the school bus.
“Don’t know what you’re talking about.”
The door starts to close again. My worn-out Chuck stays locked between us.
“Girl,” he drawls, “You don’t move that foot, this door’s going to take it off.”
Before he can act on that promise, I pull a fold of cash from my coat pocket and wave it through the crack.
Now I’ve got his attention.
The door opens wide again, and the man’s gaze moves from the money to Henry, who wilts under his hard stare.
“My dad’s out of town,” I say with a guilty smile. “He left my cousin and I some pizza money.”
The bus’s brows flatten. “That’s a lot of pizza.”
I force a laugh when he doesn’t step aside. “So what’s the cover? Twenty?”
We both know there’s not a door charge, but if a little green is what he needs to let us in, so be it.
“A hundred. Apiece.” He smirks at Henry’s leather jacket, the zipper of which Henry is nervously jerking up and down.
My face paints a portrait of disgust.
“That’s extortion,” says Henry, before catching himself. “And I should know. Because I’m kind of a businessman—”
I flatten a hand on his chest to stop him.
“Fifty apiece,” I tell the bus. He wants to play? Fine. We’ll play.
“Sixty,” he counters, and I can see in his hard eyes he’s not budging. “And the jacket’s mine. It’ll look good on my nephew.”
He tilts his chin at Henry, whose hand stalls on his zipper midway up his chest.
“My jacket?” Henry asks weakly.
“Deal,” I say, tugging it off Henry’s back. He resists for only a moment, then gives in.
“It’s vintage, so you’ll want to be—”
He makes a sound like he’s dying when the bus snatches it out of his hands. I drag Henry down the hall before he can make a scene.
“That was my lucky coat,” Henry laments, looking forlornly over his shoulder.
“We all have to make sacrifices, Dolph.”
“Got to keep your coat,” he mutters.
The linoleum beneath our feet is yellowed and warped around the corners. When we reach a metal staircase, our gazes follow the noise downstairs.
In the center of the room below, two men, already shirtless and bloodied, face off with bare knuckles. One has a tattoo across his back of a coiled rattlesnake. The other is a head taller, with a forehead the size of a three-car garage. Their makeshift ring is marked by orange traffic cones and rope, and behind the rows of jeering fans, cardboard boxes marked with NightStar’s logo have been shoved against a conveyer belt.
Snake Tattoo strikes, and Henry’s eyes widen as a spray of crimson erupts from Forehead’s nose.
“I’m positive there are at least five health code violations happening right now,” he says.
My chin lifts toward the opposite side of the catwalk, where a group of guys hover near the railing. Two of them are muscle, meant only to guard the bookie—a bald bowling-ball of a man dressed in black, sucking on the end of a toothpick. The rest are pointing at the fight below.
On the fringe, a guy in a red baseball cap chews his thumbnail.
“Hello, James,” I say under my breath.
James Rolo—at least that’s the name he gives the bookie when he places his bets—has been here three times in the last year. In between, he’s made a killing at the Brick Barrel in Amelia, and the Tulane Auto Parts Factory in Sycamore Township—big street fighting venues on the south side.
James always wins. It was just a matter of time before someone figured out how.
Below, the fighter with the snake tattoo is pummeling Forehead into the dirty cement. It’s a knock-out match. No fouls. No refs. The fans on the catwalk are cheering, fists in the air. They’ve got big money riding on this. Last I heard, the minimum bet was five large.
“Ready?” I ask.
Time’s ticking. I can feel the rush in my blood, urging us to hurry.
“I was born ready,” Henry says, then gives a small fist pump. “I’ve always wanted to say that.”
We make our way around the far side of the catwalk, pushing through the small clusters of people watching the fight below. As we approach James, I feel an old swagger fill my veins. My hips sway. My mouth curves into a grin.
A few feet away from James, we stop, and I lean over the railing.
“You’re right,” I shout to Henry over the noise. “You can see better over here!”
It’s not a lie. On this side, each bead of sweat on Forehead’s brow is visible, and the crack and slap of skin on skin echoes off the floor.
I pull back, and do a double take when James’s gaze darts away.
“Oh, hey!” I slide toward him. “We met on the train a couple weeks ago, right?”
He crosses his arms over his chest, suspicion pinching his features. “What are you doing here?”
His gaze slides over my fitted jeans, my sharp gray coat, and the clean lines of my wavy hair, hanging just below my chin thanks to Charlotte’s latest inspiration.
He’s making judgments—maybe he thinks I’m too young to be here. Maybe he thinks I’m rich and naïve.
He has no idea who I am.
“Same as you, I guess.” I give him my most reassuring smile. “Who’ve you got tonight?”
His eyes dart back to the ring, and he frowns. “McCann.”
That must be Forehead, who is now weaving from side to side like he just failed a breathalyzer.
“Ooh.” I make the ‘too bad’ face. “Got a lot riding on him?”
“More than I’d like, given the way it’s going.”
Probably something like ten grand, which is what he bet on the last two fights. Not an outrageous bet in a place like this, but enough to pull a solid purse if the underdog can actually win.
Slowly, Henry makes his way to the other side of James.
“I’ve got the other guy,” I say quickly, bringing the focus back to me.
“Ramos,” says James as a cheer erupts across the catwalk for the fighter with the snake tattoo.
“Looks like I’m not the only one.” I look down at Ramos. His cheeks are flushed, one eye half-closed from an old injury that hasn’t quite healed. There’s another bruise on his side, a purple oval on his ribs he guards with his right elbow.
I don’t know much about fighting, but it’s easy to see Ramos knows what he’s doing. McCann’s angry, his jaw flexed and his eyes wild, but Ramos is focused. His fists are up and ready. He’s light on his feet. This clearly isn’t his first rodeo.
James pulls on the brim of his hat. “You watch a lot of fighting?”
“My uncle was a Red Gloves champ in high school.”
His brows lift in recognition. Red Gloves is a big deal on the South Side. Their gyms are always open to kids who need somewhere safe to go, and their fighters always beat the soft North end kids. My ex-boyfriend Marcus was all about it until he started selling drugs for Pete.
“I did Red Gloves for a while,” says James.
I know. He was wearing an old Red Gloves shirt when we met on the train last week.
“Really?” I say.
Below us, Ramos swings hard, but somehow manages to miss McCann’s jaw and stumbles forward.
“Oh!” Henry slaps a hand on James’s chest. “Did you see that?”
We’re all watching intently now as McCann throws an uppercut to Ramos’s jaw, sending him flying backward into a conveyer belt. McCann takes that opportunity to rush him, raining down punches on the ribs Ramos isn’t fast enough to protect.
My pulse kicks up a notch.
“No!” I shout as Ramos falls to one knee.
Henry’s gaze heats the side of my face.
I thought we had more time.
One hit ends it, and Ramos crashes to the floor.
The crowd goes crazy. Everyone’s shouting for him to get up. People are cursing McCann, who’s barely standing himself. Henry’s jumping up and down, his arm around James’s shoulder. If I didn’t know better, I’d say he actually likes fighting.
“Lucky call,” I tell James through clenched teeth.
“Very lucky.” James’ smile is giddy, his eyes bright. He opens his mouth to say more, but behind him, Henry catches my eye and nods.
Time to move.
“See you next time,” I say quickly, shoving back from the railing. Adrenaline spikes in my veins as Henry and I push through the crowd toward the stairs.
“We’re going to miss him,” Henry says beside me.
“No we’re not.”
In the ring below, McCann has raised both arms and is strutting across the floor. Ramos is back up, rushing away through the NightStar machines. I don’t blame him; he was favored six to one to win. He’s probably trying to get out before the mob tears him apart for screwing up their bets.
“Go out the front!” I shout. “I’ll cut him off before he reaches the highway!”
Henry veers left down the hall where we entered. I hit the stairs at a run, sweat dewing on my hairline as I jump down the last three steps. A hulking machine throws shadows over the cement floor before me. Boxes with NightStar’s logo are stacked on wooden pallets lining my path. The fighter is nowhere to be seen. Panic squeezes my temples. I can’t come this close and fail.
A dim red exit sign across the floor pulls my attention, and when I squint I see the door below softly closing.
I sprint toward it, ducking between machines, ripping back the door to find myself beneath a bright security light. The loading docks and employee parking lot stretch to the right. A row of dumpsters to my left lead to the front of the building, and the highway beyond.
Movement draws my attention that way. In the shadows, a man in a thick gray flannel jogs awkwardly away, one hand gripping his ribs. He’s not moving fast, and it’s easy enough to catch him.
“Ramos!” I call. He doesn’t stop, though he must hear me. “Ramos, hold up!”
When he still doesn’t slow, I use his real name.
I don’t know how he moves so fast. He’s injured; he should be slower. And yet before I can dodge out of the way, he’s got me pinned against the side of a Dumpster, one fist pulled back, ready to strike.
My heart hammers against my ribs.
“Who are you?” His thick brows are flat, his stare hard and unforgiving. Up close, even in the low light, the bruises on his face are more apparent, and make him even scarier.
“A friend,” I say quickly.
“I don’t think so.” His grip on my shoulder tightens. My hands wrap around his forearm, finding solid muscle.
“I can be. I can help you.”
The corner of his cracked lip twitches.
“You’re one of his.” The word warps with disgust.
His. As if I’m owned by someone else.
“I go to Vale Hall,” I admit. “I know what happened to you and I know how to make it right, but I need your help.”
Rafael exhales a hard breath. His fist drops. He releases my shirt.
I tip forward, the knot in my stomach unclenching.
Footsteps clatter off the ground, heading our direction. Under the security light, I see a flash of Henry’s golden hair.
Somehow, he’s gotten his lucky jacket back, and in this light, he does look tough.
“He’s with me,” I say as Rafael’s shoulders bunch at the new threat.
“And I’m very dangerous if provoked,” Henry adds. “I recently had a very ugly break up, and I’m not entirely stable.” The leather coat creaks as he raises his fists in a fighting stance.
“How’d you find me?” Rafael demands. He sounds so much older than twenty-three, but that’s what the file I stole from Dr. O’s office says.
“We knew you were a boxer from your student records,” Henry says, approaching slowly. “When we couldn’t track you down, we started looking into illegal fights.”
“Figured you had to make your money somewhere,” I say.
“There are a dozen underground matches a week in this city.” Rafael wheezes as he grips his side again. Henry lowers his fists, exhaling his relief that there won’t be a confrontation. “None of them ask for names or records. There’s no paper trail.”
“We didn’t need one,” Henry says, pride rushing his words. “Brynn pretended to be a waitress at this bar in White Bank. She met the bookie there, and they got to talking…”
“He was complaining about a guy who’d won fifty grand at a fight in Amelia betting against the favorite,” I say, seeing a flash of recognition in Rafael’s eyes. “It was almost like he knew when the fighter would finally lose.”
“Or like he’d been tipped off,” says Henry. “What’s that called? Throwing a fight?”
“A guy could make a decent payout placing bets for a boxer who planned on taking the fall,” I say.
Rafael’s getting nervous; the panic is welling in his eyes. “You followed Rolo to me.”
James flashes through my mind, the brim of his red hat pulled low over his eyes. He didn’t suspect me at all when I struck up a conversation with him on the train from his job at a Sycamore supermarket.
“It wasn’t easy,” I say. “We had to put a tracer on his phone. Like you said, there are a dozen matches a week in this city.”
It’s amazing what you can order online. Sam found the paper-thin device at a concerned parenting blog. Once we had it in hand, it was just a matter of planting it on Rolo’s phone so we could follow him to his next fight.
“I took it off his phone tonight,” Henry assures Rafael, as if this is our mark’s biggest concern. “He’ll never be able to trace it back to you.”
“Keep it down.” Rafael takes a step back. His teeth flash as he searches the dark behind Henry.
I close the gap, feeling Rafael’s fear ripple between us. “You win until the odds are in your favor, then you throw the fight.” I can’t help but smirk. “Only a con could pull that off.”
Rafael’s expression is a mixture of annoyance and pride. “What do you want from me?”
“We’re getting the band back together,” I say. “Everyone Dr. O has erased from their life. He’s been winning a long time. Now we’re going to throw the fight. Show him he can’t make all his problems disappear.”
Rafael holds my gaze for a long moment, his shoulders heaving with each pained breath. My gaze moves from bruise to bruise across his face, and I can’t help the pity that storms through me. What has he had to do to survive, anonymously, these last six years? How deep do his wounds go?
He turns toward the freeway, and for a moment I think he’s going to walk away and pretend he never saw us. Then his head falls forward, and his chest caves in, as if the weight on his back is too much to bear.
“I was supposed to have a full ride to Arizona State on a boxing scholarship,” he says. “They were already looking at me for the Olympics.”
He turns back toward us, his back drawing straight. “Dr. O took everything from me. You want to cut him down? Count me in.”
I smile and glance at Henry, who’s already reaching to shake Rafael’s hand.
One more Raven has joined the flock.
Click to preorder Payback—available February 2, 2021:
Also out February 2, 2021—the paperback edition of Scammed (Book 2)!